by Subir Bhaumik* (from Calcutta)

Since the military coup on Feb. 1, 2021, the regime has tried to repress a defiant population. Its tactics have included arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, widespread bombing of civilians – from land, air and sea – torture and arson attacks. The 1027 offensive (launched On October 27, 2023, in Shan State, near the Chinese border ed.) by three ethnic militias followed by an eruption of heavy fighting in Myanmar’s other battle zones has led to the loss of huge territory by the junta troops including 45 big and small towns. Instead of curbing the resistance, the junta’s war crimes have inflamed it and the success of the ongoing rebel offensive has boosted rebel ranks with fresh recruits. 

The Arakan Army (AA), one of the three armed groups that launched the offensive under the name Brotherhood Alliance, was formed in 2009 and has since won a series of military victories against the Tatmadaw (Burmese army), to achieve independence for Rakhine State in north-west Myanmar. But, it now seems, its goal has changed as it wants to partner with the National Unity Government (NUG, the democratic shadow government opposing the junta ed.) and other rebel armies in creating a truly federal democracy in Myanmar. 

“Our revolution cannot solely focus on Rakhine nationalism because the fate of all oppressed ethnic groups in Myanmar is inter-connected,” major general Twan Mrat Naing, commander-in-chief of the Arakan Army (AA) said. “We must consider the plight of all ethnic groups, including the majority Bamars in mainland regions, who are also oppressed by the military dictatorship. This understanding became clearer to us as we continued our struggle for revolution,” he continued.

Relations with the previous democratic government under the National League for Democracy (NLD) have not been easy, but Maj-Gen Twan Mrat Naing said that despite past disputes, the AA now communicates with the National Unity Government (NUG), which is seen as the NLD’s successor and provides assistance on relevant matters. “As a significant player in Myanmar’s political landscape, we recognize the importance of discerning whom to engage with and how. Indeed, we had some problems between us in the past. However, we believe there are no permanent enemies or friends. We aim to foster lasting friendships based on genuine intentions. We stand ready to assist and support all those who seek the betterment of our nation”, the Major General emphasized. “I believe that true progress can only be made when the concept of citizenship rights and responsibilities is clearly defined for all citizens, paving the way for systematic development and a brighter future”, he added, and concluded: “I believe that only when the rule of the military dictatorship ends, can we then secure a prosperous future for all Myanmar’s people and ensure lasting peace.”

Fighting an increasingly hopeless defensive campaign against multiple rebel armies, some bonded into the Brotherhood Alliance, the Burmese military junta has resorted to desperate countrywide conscription to buttress its forces in a move likely to backfire. The regime, which has been considering the idea for at least two years, said that it will begin to implement the 2010 People’s Military Service Law, enacted under the previous military regime but left dormant until now. Junta spokesperson major-general Zaw Min Tun said in an interview with BBC Burmese that about 50,000 people of fighting age would be recruited each year, starting after the traditional Myanmar New Year on April 17.

The resistance is not taking the move lightly. In a statement on Tuesday 13 February, the National Unity Government said the “terrorist military” has no legitimacy to enact or enforce any law and the public is not obligated to comply. The NUG also warned that anyone helping to facilitate conscription will be “seriously punished”, without explaining how. Three activist groups put out a joint statement in which they urged neighbouring countries to prepare for a mass exodus of Myanmar youth fleeing conscription. That exodus may have started already. The number of people crossing from Tanintharyi Region’s Kawthaung Township to Thailand in a day doubled on Tuesday, while in front of the Thai embassy in Yangon, a long line of people are queuing to apply for a visa.

The Tatmadaw (Burmese army) still has men and material to fight on. But what should worry the generals is the drooping morale of the troops who have not been given a salary for months and asked to live off the land. An army wins if troop morale is high. It loses despite the best equipment if troops are panicking and unwilling to fight, especially if it means the massacre of their countrymen. Youngsters prided joining the army in Myanmar during its long years in power but that has changed. Not even rats like staying on a sinking ship. So when the junta, facing back-to-back military defeats on multiple fronts against highly motivated rebel fighters, announced large-scale military conscription, it evoked universal rejection and disdain. All men aged 18-35 and women aged 18-27 in Myanmar are now required to serve in the armed forces for at least two years. The upper age limit rises to 45 for men and to 35 for women if they have specialist expertise, like medical or engineering. Specialists can also be conscripted for three years, and all conscripts can be forced to serve five years during a state of emergency, like the current one.

Immediately after the announcement, Facebook, whose users comprise almost 35% of Myanmar’s population, was flooded with posts and comments. Many youths are saying on social media that they will join armed resistance forces or flee to liberated areas or other countries to avoid joining the junta forces brutalizing Myanmar. Numerous armed resistance groups say they will welcome new, voluntary recruits.

Now, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing faces the toughest challenge yet to his authority, and he is trying to forcibly enlist support. Hlaing needs conscription to replenish troop levels, but at the same time, he is further eroding public support. The military supremo is in a classic Catch-22 situation which can only take him down.

On the cover photo, a deserter from the Burmese army, Chin State, June 2023 © Alessandro De Pascale

* Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of five books on India’s Northeast and its volatile neighbourhood. He has worked as a senior editor in Myanmar’s Mizzima media